Tuesday, 3 July 2007

A Flight Of Fancy

(Note: I updated the passenger statistics in this post and put in proper references on 07/07/07. Instead of watching Live Earth. I feel I made the right choice.)

Slightly teeth-grinding article in the Observer Travel supplement this week. After a great start (two opening paragraphs about the Camp for Climate Action) the article meanders with cheerful incoherence through a mish-mash of statistics and quotes from the Indian government, Airbus, a Kenyan health and conservation project, the British Airline Pilots Association, an engineering professor from Lancaster University, the Tyndall Centre and Greenpeace, before concluding:

"So should we stop flying? If no one set foot on a plane again, it would undoubtedly help to stop climate change - though at the expense of killing off the tourism-based economies of many of the world's poorest countries. But in the real world, with the US and the developing world demanding thousands of new planes, surely we have to take a more sophisticated approach: to choose airlines with greener, newer fleets, and thus encourage plane makers to prioritise environmental performance; to travel to destinations that help local communities rather than destroy them; to take the train where possible; to reduce carbon emissions at home; and, above all, lobby politicians to tackle deforestation and to switch to green forms of energy.

"Do all this, and we can start to cancel flights in the knowledge that it really will make a difference"

Sigh. Once again a well-meaning journalist tries desperately to prove that we can tackle climate change without a drastic reduction in flights. I have some sympathy - it must be a really, really tough thing to come to terms with if you're used to flying off to all kinds of wonderful places as a travel reporter - but the unpalatable truth is that it's a highly destructive activity and if left unchecked will wreck all our efforts to reduce emissions in other sectors. Flying is a luxury - most of the population of the planet have never done it, and never will. There is no sustainable alternative, so we need to do much, much less of it.

For a more clear-eyed viewpoint - and a fantastic example of the self-contradictory nature of the mainstream press - you might want to check out the article about Plane Stupid from the same edition of the paper. Or, if you've got a few minutes to kill, you could join me on a merry journey through rant-land as I make myself feel better by pointing out the main things that are stupid or wrong in this article. Hurrah!

"Some ferries emit more CO2 than planes"

This is true for the high-speed ones with the inbuilt shopping centres which come out worse than planes even when you include radiative forcing (the extra impact from other greenhouse gases that planes emit, and the fact that they're emitted in the upper atmosphere). However, just because some ferries are highly polluting doesn't magically stop planes from being highly polluting. The same goes for inefficient cars and badly-designed trains. We shouldn't be using any of these things. Stupid argument. Next!

"Even if we cut our flights, the rest of the world's flights will still grow massively - India, China, blah blah blah"

Cutting flights in Britain would send a hugely significant signal to the rest of the world. It's hard to think of many things that could send a stronger message about the unsustainability of air travel. More generally, action on climate change must begin with the biggest polluters, and if we want to have any credibility in talking about global emissions cuts with the rest of the world we have to get our own house in order first. The Government's plans on aviation expansion would make it impossible to hit even their own inadequate targets, even using their favoured wacky measuring system of only including UK citizens' outgoing flights (even though, you know, most people do fly back as well). So this argument is pretty weak as well.

"People talk about taking fewer flights but no-one's really doing it, or if they are Ryanair haven't noticed, and it wouldn't make much difference if they did, except that we only need to take a couple fewer flights each per year to hit the Government targets"

Huh? OK, I'm going to ignore all the weird self-contradictory stuff in this article and just respond to the points raised. Clearly, the fact that people have started realising that flying everywhere is bad for the climate is a positive step, and shows the message is getting through. However, any individual action people are taking seems to be being lost amidst the overall growth of aviation. The author of the Observer article enjoys some GCSE maths fun by working out that, on average, five flights are taken per person in the UK per year, and so
to make a 60% cut in emissions "we simply need to slowly wean ourselves down to two annual flights - one return trip". This is misleading in three ways. Firstly, it misrepresents the reality of the IPCC's carbon emissions reduction target: to hit a global reduction of 60% by 2050 will require larger cuts in the most polluting activities like flying in order to allow developing nations some room to develop – unless being able to fly out to one’s Spanish cottage every year is just as important as powering a Tanzanian hospital or an Indian school (this is what Contraction & Convergence is all about). Secondly, it pretends that all flights are the same length. Thirdly, it ignores the fact that UK citizens are not really taking five flights each per year - it is a minority of wealthy people who are taking the majority of these flights. Here are some statistics you might find interesting (with thanks to Airport Watch):

* The richest 18 per cent of the UK population are responsible for 54 percent of flights, whilst the poorest 18 per cent are responsible for just 5 percent (calculated by WDM based on 2006 data from the Office of National Statistics).

* In 2005, 86% of the passengers who used Heathrow were from the better-off socio-economic categories A, B and C1 (my calculations, using data from the Civil Aviation Authority 2005 Passenger Survey)

* The average annual income of people using Stansted (where low cost carriers account for nearly all the flights) is more than £50,000 (
Civil Aviation Authority 2005 Passenger Survey)

* Each year, 60% of UK residents do not step onto a plane (MORI poll 2001).

The article claims that 3% of people have stopped flying and 10% have cut down because of "environmental concerns". If this is true, fantastic - but this will have little impact on the overall flight numbers if it doesn't include the people who are actually taking all those flights. The continuing boom in airline ticket sales suggests that it probably doesn't.

This is why campaigners like me aren't just asking people to stop flying - we're demanding that the Government halt, and then reverse, airport expansion. The only thing absolutely guaranteed to reduce the number of flights in the UK is a reduction in airport capacity. If we don't seriously reduce our flying, we are absolutely guaranteed to miss all our CO2 reduction targets, destabilise the climate and turn the planet into a floods-droughts-storms-and-resource-wars lucky dip of disaster. It's that simple.

“Flying is only 1.7% of global emissions – deforestation is much more important”

There's actually a good point hiding in here somewhere - deforestation is a massive problem, and we don't just contribute to it by purchasing forest-unfriendly products (burgers, palm oil, Government office refurbishments); the UK Government's role in the
WTO, IMF and World Bank helps to encourage, finance and defend disastrously destructive projects all over the world. We do need to take action on this. However, there are some excellent reasons for the current campaign focus on flights:

Flying is growing rapidly, and we have the opportunity to stop it before it gets completely out of control. Flying is done by the wealthy, which puts the onus firmly onto us. Flying is an activity that produces benefit for a tiny minority but has a proportionally huge impact on the climate. When we try to figure out what a sustainable, low-carbon lifestyle would look like, flying is too polluting to fit into it as more that a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime luxury. In addition, one of the major technological solutions being suggested to reduce the impacts of flights – biofuels – would massively increase deforestation. The UK Government is proposing a huge airport expansion that would wipe out all of its own climate change targets. If we don't win this one, everything else becomes much, much more difficult.

“Stopping flying is less important than insulating your roof”

Clearly, this depends on how much you fly! But more importantly, we know that there is a limit to how much greenhouse gas we can put into the atmosphere. This means there is a limit to how much we can each emit per year (somewhere between 1 and 2 tonnes of CO2e per capita by 2030, depending on whose analysis you go with). This means a massive, across-the-board cut in the UK’s emissions – we have to cut our energy use AND our flights. We can’t choose between them. The only difference is that no-one in the UK needs to fly, whereas everyone needs a warm home.

"Techno! Techno! Techno! Technofix!"

The absolute best case airline industry scenario is that aeroplane fuel efficiency might increase by 1-2% per year.
Planes have a lifespan of about 20 years and so are replaced too slowly for efficiency gains to take effect at even this slow rate. Air journeys from the UK are currently increasing by 4% per year. No-one has any feasible plans for running planes on anything except kerosene, or kerosene with a splash of biofuel (bye bye rainforests).

“Flying isn’t a luxury activity – it’s vital for tourism in countries like Kenya”

This argument is fairly awful for three reasons. Firstly, unchecked climate change will do far worse damage to countries like Kenya than the loss of tourist revenue, and the fossil fuel industries that fuel the planes are already destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the Global South. Secondly, the only way to cut global emissions whilst still allowing poor countries to develop is for the wealthy countries to make deeper, earlier cuts – with flights being top of the list of luxuries we can afford to lose. Thirdly, the equitable solutions to climate change that social movements in the South are demanding – renewable energy transfer, local and regional food and energy networks, the halting of extractive industries, community control of land and resources, a moratorium on biofuels and destructive offsetting projects – have the potential to provide far greater benefits to the people of the South than tourism ever has.

OK. Enough ranting. I'm going to try to condense some of this into a probably-doomed-but-worth-a-go letter to the Observer.

D xXx